Skulls to Wheat in West Roxbury

August 21st, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

If Forest Hills is a palace among cemeteries, Westerly is a studio apartment, one with a terrible view, but well furnished nonetheless. Today I wandered a bit in the wee West Roxbury burying ground. It has treasurers.

In particularly, Westerly’s existence reflects WR’s then and current attitude. As part of Roxbury and founded about the same time as Boston, near 1630, what became West Roxbury had to have their own, as they do now. The locals buried their bodies in Eliot Street ground, at what became Dudley Square. In 1683, the gentry in western Roxbury decided it was too much of a bother and set up their own cemetery, with the first burial in 1691.

hannahFor us cemetery and iconography freaks, the keen feature is that the ground with only a few hundred burials (many currently who knows where and without stones remaining), Westerly has examples of three centuries of New England stones.

While the MFA filched one as an good example of the slate stone, none of the iconography is unique or even spectacular. However, this little ground is a fine place to see a wide range in a single location.

That spot by the bye is now the backyard of the gigantic Walgreen’s on Centre Street. The unlocked entrance is behind a bus stop at LaGrange. It’s right there, but even many locals don’t notice it or stroll through. It’s on the historic register and comes with the standard restrictions, like no dog walking, no booze, and no gravestone rubbing.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

Westerly has many examples of the N.E. classic icon of a winged skull. These are symbols of transformation — to the afterlife. Mehetabel Newel (d. 1739) is a fine example of the early 18th Century work, replete with side scrolling. MehetabelNewel
Newelskull The top in slate is finely carved and has survived well.
Robert Seaver’s (died 1770) already shows the personalization. The original Puritans allegedly saw no chance of communication with the Almighty, yet the skull ornamentation continued to evolve from stylized bones to faces. I’d bet that this resembled Seaver. robertseaver
EBacon1 An older stone, Elizabeth Bacon (died 1713) showed what happened when you gave license to the carver, who expanded the acceptable symbolism. These works are unsigned, although some carvers were prolific enough to be known.
Some of the starkest examples of the skull remain the most straightforward. Here the stone of Benjamin Lyon (died 1752) were Puritan in providing just his death and age, although with modest scroll work lyonfull
WillieHunting In some cemeteries, stones of infants and small children have wee lambs and such. Here, Little Willie (Hunting, died 1860), under two years, had no decoration.
More typically for a child, four year old Abby Harper (died 1845) had a stone with simple wording, but flowers in bud and blossom. Of course, those represented a young life. These are among the most poignant in some cemeteries when there are several blossom or lamb stones together for youngsters who fell to an epidemic. childflowers
guildclose Westerly has a common icon that appears in many N.E. cemeteries. The gathered sheaf of wheat represents God harvesting the people in their time.
Wheat often appeared in whole family plots. Here, the (died 1877 and 1878) stones of Abner and Mary Guild show the symbol, clearly done by the same carver. guilds
draperclose A variation in the same period was a sheaf on top of the stone. This might appear on a single grave, or as here in the mid-to-late 18th Century family stone of the Drapers.
Despite the elaborate carving, these wheat bundles survive amazingly well. Here the 1840 stone topping still shows detail. sheaftop
urncherub Westerly has several other common symbols done well, particularly the urn and willow. Here, an early version on the stone of William Lyon (died 1714) shows cherubs bearing a urn. The container symbolizes the soul within the body, with the transformation winged skull above, as the little angels carry the urn off. We presume there were headed upward.
More typically, stones came to include willows. These trees symbolized eternal life. Here a particularly fine specimen appears on an 1877 stone. willow1877
willowurn As in the previous from the same period, the willow appears next to an urn, with its body/soul symbolism.

Resident directory: The 280 known burials have gotten history buffs excited. The Find-a-Grave site lets you search them, many with images and some with transcriptions of the text. No one hugely famous is here, but there are many from pre-Revolutionary through the Civil War.


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2 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    Always enjoy the trips and pix in the various necropoli! Nice work on pix and explication on iconography. Semper mort.

  2. joseph walsh says:

    I used to walk across Readville’s Paul Bridge with my mother and aunt when I was a toddler….spent the first four years of life during WWII at my grandfather’s house on Hyde Park Avenue, a block from Camp Meigs grounds.
    I recommend to you the Old Village Cemetery in Dedham, behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
    Am enjoying your blog immensely…thanks!
    J.

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